The thin strap of a duffel bag cut into Milo’s shoulder as he stood on the front step of the old house where he grew up. He studied a painfully new, gold mailbox that dangled a limp newspaper in its protruding tongue. He studied how it contrasted so sharply with the peeling, faded blue paint of the house that he had chipped off with his fingernails as a child. He began counting in his head, promising himself that he would ring the doorbell when he got to ten.
“You’re home!” his mother squealed as she swung open the front door, leaving only a thin metal screen between their faces. “Come in, come in, you’re just in time. Dinner is almost ready.” She was wearing a heavy necklace made of amethyst and jade stones, rounded like fish scales, the kind of necklace Milo remembered holding as a small child in his palms.
“Mom.” He struggled to squeeze himself and his bag through the narrow doorway, until, with one last pull forwards, he propelled himself back ten years, his feet landing noisily on the hardwood floor of the foyer. His ceramic artwork from elementary school sat on a coffee table close by.
“Give me a hug.” She struggled to fit her arms somewhere comfortably over his bag and bulky suit jacket. She finally rested her forearms on his wide shoulders and looked into his eyes. She paused, taking him in, adjusting her eyes to his five o’clock shadow. To a body she should recognize.
Milo slowly broke away from her grasp and moved to put down his duffel bag in a corner, near the stairs. Those fourteen creaking steps he had climbed and descended, as his legs lengthened and his feet grew out of pairs of sneakers. By twelve he could take the stairs two at a time.
“How was your flight? Did you get to see a good movie?”
“I caught up on some paperwork. It was some horrible romantic comedy, I think. Who is that guy with the southern accent and the blond hair?”
“I can’t keep them straight anymore. I’m sure they fed you next to nothing, you must be starving. We’re having chicken cordon bleu!”
His favorite. He saw that the bookshelves had been dusted and that fresh flowers sat in every free space around the living room. It stung Milo, a little bit, that she had to force this chitchat with him, treat him like a guest, at a time like this. But he had been gone too long for her to skip this small talk. Six years with barely a phone call. Six years. So now they were in some kind of primer for the real conversations, the necessary stretching before the big game, before she could tell him that as her father died slowly, his body only animated by the pumping, beeping machines that surrounded his hospital bed, a part of her died slowly, too. But, Milo thought, at least they were making the motions; at least, at some point, the two of them would be able to actually speak.
“So how is Sarah? Beautiful as ever?” She smiled in the knowing way a mother smiles when she accepts that her son is in love with a woman, a woman who isn’t her.
She had only seen photographs that Milo sent once a year around Christmastime, photos of the two of them on vacation, kissing at the beach, his palm in the perfect indent between her shoulder blades. There was something in Sarah’s face that let his mother trust her. It may have been her eyes. His mother swore that when Sarah looked at Milo in one picture, the two of them leaning against a metal rail at Yellowstone, her eyes looked like melting ice.
“She’s fine.” Milo felt his heart tighten and then release with a sharp pain. He couldn’t tell her. Not now. “But how are you, mom? Are you okay?”
“The best that can be expected I guess. I go to the hospital two or three times a day now.”
“Mom.” He followed her noise into the kitchen, and stood in the doorframe. “How are you, though? I know it hasn’t been sudden, we all knew it was coming, but it’s still. It’s still.” He had no word for it. He wiggled his toes in his dress shoes and felt younger than he had in years. Sad. Heartbreaking. “It’s still your father.”
“I have something to show you.” She looked up at him with glassy eyes and marched quickly away from him, out of the kitchen and towards her study. “Remember how I told you I had that collection? A collection of fish jewelry since you got me that pin for Christmas?” He remembered being eight and finding that pin in a bureau drawer full of junk at the thrift store in his hometown. A large, gaudy metal pin of a flat fish, mouth agape and eyes jumbled, green luminescent scales dotting its body. Somehow it was perfect – the first gift he had ever bought anyone.
“It’s gotten pretty big since I started. Can you believe it’s been ten years?” The year he left for college. The year his parents bought a misbehaved Labrador puppy, the year they took up skiing, and still his mother cried when he would call from school.
Milo followed his mother’s voice into the study and then into a closet that housed water pipes and the old heater.
“What do you think?” She faced him, watching for his expression.
Milo stared. Above a hissing radiator were three full walls of jewelry. Jewelry of different sizes, shapes, and colors, hanging from cloth netting that had been nailed to the drywall and draped along the pipes. A collection of time, of distance, of fish with wide eyes and mouths agape, dripping from the ceiling down to the floor. Glittering, shimmering, catching his eyes with specks of light. This is what it means to love someone.